By Susan Davis, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - The Senate will vote on dueling legislative proposals Thursday to prevent sweeping across-the-board federal spending cuts, but there is no confidence lawmakers will reach a bipartisan deal with President Obama before the Friday deadline.
Obama has summoned the top four congressional leaders to a White House meeting Friday to discuss the cuts, known as the "sequester," while House Republicans are maneuvering to give the Pentagon more discretion in how to implement the cuts.
The sequester will require federal agencies to make $85 billion in spending cuts between March 1 and the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The cuts are the first tranche of a decade-long plan to reduce spending by $1.2 trillion by applying an across-the-board cut to nearly every program of the federal government, except for military personnel and entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
Senate Democrats have offered an alternative to pay for the sequester through 2013 with a combination of a minimum 30% tax on millionaires and cuts to defense and farm payments. It will fail because it does not have the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Republican filibuster. GOP senators oppose the plan because it raises taxes.
"Now, less than 48 hours before the clock runs out, all they've offered is a gimmicky tax hike that's designed to fail. I hope they're not expecting a round of applause for this particular act of political bravery," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Senate Republicans are considering an alternative that would require the same level of budget cuts but put the burden on the president to determine which programs would be cut and which would be spared. The White House contends they will not support any sequester alternative that doesn't include both revenue increases and spending cuts.
"What we haven't seen when we hear Republican leaders adamantly refuse to consider revenue as part of deficit reduction is anything like that same spirit of compromise or seriousness of purpose that I think you've seen demonstrated by the president and Democratic leaders," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has not voted on any alternatives to the cuts. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said the House will consider alternatives when the Senate finds a plan that can pass the upper chamber.
In the previous Congress, the House twice passed sequester alternatives, but they never became law.
"We should not have to move a third bill before the Senate gets off their ass and begins to do something," Boehner said Tuesday.
Instead, the House intends to take up a resolution next week to fund the government through Sept. 30. The current funding runs out March 27, threatening a government shutdown if Congress doesn't act.
Attached to the bill will be two defense spending bills that will give the Pentagon more flexibility to implement the sequester.
Many lawmakers have expressed concern about how the cuts could impact national security.
"It will require some cuts in defense, but they do not adversely affect readiness or training," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., who oversees defense spending bills. Young said the bill has broad support among House Republicans and is expected to pass next week. Even so, it is unclear whether it can pass the Senate. "This is a fallback position," he said.
Boehner also issued a further signal that sequester cuts would not be averted before Friday: He informed lawmakers that he was canceling the use of military aircraft for lawmakers' travel. "The speaker believes this is the prudent and responsible course of action, and it goes above and beyond the spending cuts the House will be implementing to comply with the president's sequester," said spokesman Michael Steel.
Lawmaker travel on commercial airlines, however, can continue.